House of Weeds by Amy Charlotte Kean and Jack Wallington

-Reviewed by Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig-

Weeds are underrated. Underdogs that thrive in the smallest of spaces with the littlest of nutrients and light. Most people consider them unwelcome and treat them accordingly. Weeds are maligned, stigmatized, eradicated. All the while they are giving, granting food and shelter to various beasts and insects, and in some cases gifting healing properties to us. Why, then, if they have so much to offer, do we think of them as unwanted and prefer other plants?

This question is at the heart of the illustrated collection House of Weeds by Amy Charlotte Kean (poetry) and Jack Wallington (illustrations) published by Fly on the Wall Press. As the title suggests, the book speaks of a community of weeds —outsiders — with each poem carrying the name of a particular ‘undesirable’. And colourful names these are: the ‘dog rose’, ‘mind your own business’, ‘purple toadflax’, or ‘stinking iris’ – reminding us not only of the precarious status of their owners but also of their long and rich cultural histories.

In a mix of free verse and prose poems House of Weeds gives voice to those usually silenced. It examines their qualities and passions, sometimes letting them speak for themselves, at other times observing them respectfully and with compassion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, weeds and wildflowers are a rebellious lot, some of them loud and at times aggressively energetic. Those subject to suppression will stand up against it: listen to the teasel describing itself as ‘snapping, biting bristled teeth of tall unfriendly crowds’. Others, like common knapweed, choose a more subversive approach (‘under my tufts, a covert anarchy’); or are cocky, like ragwort (‘Think of me as a landmark infamy’); or intense, like herb robert (‘My girl called me too much’). Last but not least, there are the more introvert types, those with a sensitive, caring side. Among other things they remind us that true strength lies in kindness and togetherness, or, as the aptly named fox and cub puts it: ‘growth occurs when you rise, hands held […] We are all children.’ 

There is much to learn from these plants, from their resilience, independence, pride, revolutionary spirit, vulnerabilities (‘knowing / love, unrequited, is the safest of all’). They remind us that everyone has a role to play: ‘Someone has to be me’, the fern says, ‘How would the rest of you feel normal.’ In a world of limited resources there is an exemplary modesty to their existence – ‘Pouring roots into gaps slim as fairies’ wrists’, their life is as self-sufficient as it is full – and joyful. And all that despite the odds, despite being othered, nervous to the point of being unable to rest, brutally punished for falling out of line (‘and don’t dare, even once, act natural’). 

These wild plants hold up a mirror to our feeling of being threatened by difference. They encourage us to remain open-minded instead of ascribing negative traits to something or someone we are simply not familiar with, yet. We might even be attracted to their perceived dangerousness, their sensuous nature (‘Kissing is our revelation. […] the surging nerves of eager lips’), or the divine quality of a life lived intensely. In the end, what they demand is what everyone needs: the right to belong, to be unharmed, not only tolerated but respected.

By giving voice to some of the outsiders in the world of plants, these poems focus our attention on those existing in the margins more generally – those who, in comparison to any given majority, live their lives differently either by choice or because they are forced to. The always-present allegorical link between human and plant life in the poems is brought to the fore by the illustrations accompanying them: ink sketches that create visual connections between characters represented in the forms of text and image, each feeding off the other. The illustrations respond to and incorporate the shapes, character, tone, and colours of the plants. Much like the mystery of some of the verses, their simplicity leaves a lot of room for the reader’s imagination. All in all, House of Weeds is a collaborative work to be read and reread, thought and talked about. A book very much of and for our times.